Prose to the Gettysburg Address’s poetry

1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam GoodheartLincoln didn’t scribble the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope in a train or on a napkin at a diner on the way to Gettysburg, but “he wrote it fairly quickly.” Historian Adam Goodheart’s assessment is in line with other accounts I’ve read, but in his book 1861: The Civil War Awakening, he explains Lincoln’s quick work in a way that finally makes sense to me. He says that Lincoln did most of the thinking necessary for the famous 1863 address a couple of years earlier, when he was drafting his July 4, 1861 message to Congress justifying the Union war effort (360).

Lincoln worked hard then. He started writing the address over two months before its delivery, and by mid-June his secretary John Nicolay recorded that Lincoln was “engaged almost constantly in writing the message.” Goodheart presents evidence that “many Americans shook their heads in disbelief at how much time the president was spending on his message” (356). But the long work in 1861 made for short work in 1863:

Lincoln had already done the hard work of the Gettysburg Address, the heavy intellectual lifting, in 1861. The two intervening years would go to pare away the nonessentials, to sculpt 6,256 words of prose into 246 words of poetry. (361)

Goodheart’s insight rings true from what I know of writing. Writers write to understand what their preoccupations make of experience. Essentially, then, writers rewrite. A writer’s new works are, more than most anything, new attempts to frame or answer old, nagging questions.

So I reread Lincoln’s July 4, 1861 message in light of the Gettysburg Address. I used co-ment.com to mark up and comment on the latter address with portions of the former one. The result is a pdf file you can view and download here: GettysburgAddressJuly41861Message.  (A link to the text of the entire 1861 message is here.)

1861 is one of the most engaging books I’ve read that recounts a year of American history. It weaves the stories of disparate Americans as the country transitioned from a long, uneasy peace to civil war.

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